October 7, 2009 11:19:00 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
Streaks are part of Northeast Mississippi''s football history.
But before South Panola High School football team claimed the honor of holding the state''s longest winning streak, that honor belonged to coach Jimmie Moore''s Hamilton Lions.
Moore''s Lions, who accomplished the unbelievable feat of going through the 1977 season without allowing a point, went on two years later to start a winning streak that stretched to 51 games until Oct. 7, 1983, when coach Rudy Pope''s New Hope High Trojans ended the run with a 35-14 victory in Columbus.
Memories of that game are still vivid in this part of the state as Columbus High prepares to play host to South Panola at 7 p.m. Friday.
South Panola defeated Columbus 42-0 on Oct. 6, 2006, in Batesville to set a new standard for consecutive victories in the state of Mississippi.
It went on to eclipse the state''s longest unbeaten streak of 64 held by George Washington Carver, of Picayune, (one tie after 50 consecutive victories) and run its string to 89 straight victories before it lost to Meridian last year in the Class 5A state title game.
Pope, now a teacher at Bruce High School, spent four years as football coach at New Hope High. He still has fond memories of the time the Trojans ended the Lions'' run.
"We were basically a running team," Pope said. "We played some pretty good defense and had some pretty good years."
Pope remembered Moore called him and asked him if he wanted to schedule a game. He recalls thinking it was strange that Hamilton, which won the Class BB state title in 1981 and the Class B title in 1982, wanted to play New Hope, a higher classification school.
But Pope said he was willing to play and started to prepare for the game.
On game night, Pope said he knew Hamilton sometimes arrived at a stadium just before kickoff, so he had his players line up to greet the Lions as they exited their buses and came onto the field. He said he wanted the Trojans to have the mental edge before the game started.
As for strategy, Pope said he and his assistant coaches didn''t prepare for the matchup any differently than they did for any other game. Still, he said he was familiar enough with Moore and his tendencies to know what the Lions would try to do.
"They had lightning speed to get to the corner and get to outside, but we took that away because we knew they were going to do that," Pope said. "They were not able to get to the outside on sweeps because we tried to turn them inside and punish them when we hit them."
Hamilton drove to the New Hope 2 just before halftime but couldn''t score to send the teams into halftime tied at 14.
A third-quarter interception by Steven Gregory helped the Trojans score 21 unanswered points in the second half and end the streak.
Gregory rushed for 164 yards and two touchdowns and had an interception. His brother, Shawn, who was playing for injured quarterback Doug Brown, led the Trojans'' offense.
Donnie Sanders, who was a tight end and a defensive end on that team,
said Hamilton had a history of turning out great athletes, including Don Smith and John Lowe, who led the 1982 Hamilton High team to a state title and then moved on to play football at Mississippi State.
Sanders remembers there being plenty of hype around the game and that the Trojans were focused on not being embarrassed on their field, especially on homecoming night.
"It did not take a lot of motivation that week to get prepared," Sanders said. "After we beat them we had a sense that our hard work had paid off. One of the things that coach Polk believed in and made us believe in is that if you work harder than everybody else you have got a chance to win games in the third and fourth quarters. He continually drilled that into us."
James T. Rush was a senior quarterback for Hamilton High in 1983. Now an assistant principal at West Oktibbeha High School and athletic director at East and West Oktibbeha high schools, Rush said the 26th anniversary of the game is probably something he would not like to remember.
But Rush still took time to recall some of his memories and said Hamilton''s success stemmed from the fact it was and remains a close-knit community that was fortunate to have a great coach.
"Coach Moore had a general concern for you going on in life and doing well," Rush said. "He taught us some life situations and scenarios that would take us farther in life."
Rush recalls telling Moore that he wouldn''t be able to attend after-school workouts because he needed to get a job to help his family. He said Moore told him not to worry about getting a job because he had some rental properties where Rush could work and cut the grass to earn a little extra money.
Rush also said he was fond of playing checkers, as was Moore, and that Moore would talk during games and impart life lessons. He thinks Moore''s penchant for talking while playing checkers is why so many players didn''t want to play against him.
As for the game, Rush said he was disappointed he couldn''t help the Lions extend the streak because seniors like Smith, Lowe, and Ray Hollivay, whose son, Ryan, is now a member of the New Hope High football team, worked so hard to get it to that point.
"I was team captain and felt the responsibility of carrying on that streak was placed on my shoulders," Rush said. "In a lot of ways, I was heartbroken when the streak was broken, but we had to get on with the business of playing football."
Even though the streak ended that night in Columbus, Hollivay, who went on to play football at Alcorn State, said Moore helped so many young men fulfill their dreams. He said Moore''s ability to assess talent made him one of the state''s best coaches.
"He put everything he had into winning," Hollivay said. "He was student of the game, and one of the greatest coaches ever to walk the sidelines."
And for 23 years, Hamilton''s streak was the best in the state until that fateful night in Columbus.
"It meant everything to the people of Hamilton because that was one of our best sports at the time," Hollivay said. "Everywhere we went we had almost the whole town of Hamilton behind us. They enjoyed watching the Lions play."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.